Aggressive, invasive, triple-negative non-hormone driven stage 3 breast cancer.
Yeah sure, I know it was February of last year that I found the lump. And I’m aware that the multiple biopsy results came on Noah’s 13th birthday in March of last year. On April 10, 2013 my body was altered forever when a surgeon removed both of my breasts, all the way to the chest wall. Chemo took my hair shortly thereafter, and by the end made it difficult to walk, even with a cane. Radiation burned my skin, forever making that area slow to heal. Scars were left, after several surgeries, from mid-sternum to underarm, on both sides.
Through all of that, I tried to stay positive. I tried to keep smiling. I tried to keep going and not think about anything but getting through the treatments and get it over with. And I did it! My PET scan was clear, showing no signs of cancer in November 2013. Radiation ended February 19, 2014 – ending all treatments, and that was it. I was done! And every day since it ended, I woke up with an exquisite realization – I BEAT Cancer!
Time passed, strength returned, health returned. I started working out again! I started eating better again! I started losing the 27 pounds that I gained during treatments! Then, despite having said from the very beginning that I would have no part of reconstruction, I entertained the option for two reasons: I did not like what I saw in the mirror, and some of my clothes were not fitting right. Small implants should do the trick, I thought, to fill in the caved-in areas of my chest, fill my swimsuit, yet still omit the need for a bra. Sounded like a win-win to me!
I had my surgery on July 24th. Within a week or two I felt great, and back to normal – despite the fact that you couldn’t even tell that I had gotten implants. Five weeks after surgery, my skin split open on the radiated side, and turned into an infection that wouldn’t respond to antibiotics. So last week, on September 18th, I was back in surgery to un-do all that had been done in July, remove the implant, and get rid of all of the infection.
Yesterday, I removed the bandages for the first time so that I could shower. It was like someone had punched me in the gut. It took my breath away. The damage was worse now than way back after the double mastectomy last year. I obviously was NOT prepared for what I saw, and I stood for what seemed like forever, mouth agape, staring at even worse caved-in scars than existed before. There are no words, but the sense of loss overwhelmed me at that moment – and I believe that it was then that the mourning began.
Today, I can’t stop crying. I have no way to explain it, except for an overwhelming sense of grief. It isn’t about not being grateful that I beat cancer. It isn’t about not being thankful that the staph infection didn’t get into my bloodstream and kill me. I mean, truly, I hated my large breasts before cancer; but I never hated them enough to disfigure myself. But it is a very odd place to be where I don’t look like a woman when topless; nor do I look like a guy when topless. I feel like some androgynous person who gets called sir in the check-out line, and then called ma’am when they hear my voice. I know that there is the option, after a while, to start over with something else that can be made from my own tissue, but that doesn’t take away from what I have to see today, and every day until maybe it can be repaired. But truthfully, the more I see these scars, the less hope that I have for a repair that will look remotely like a breast.
I don’t know how to mourn. I don’t know how to grieve a major loss and then let it go. I know how to shove down feelings, sometimes to the point of omitting them from my memories. I know how to stifle tears that start to choke me, for fear that if I let them go, they won’t stop and will overtake me. When death has touched my family on rare occasions, I will usually cry at the intital news but then keep it together from that point forward. I did fall apart after the loss of a baby and again when my oldest moved out, and that was enough for me. To me, it doesn’t seem to be productive to fall apart, when I would much rather just face things, deal with it, and keep smiling and cracking jokes in order to cope. So for whatever reason, now, all of these months and months and surgery scars later, my psyche has decided that THIS surgery was the one. The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. Floodgates are being pressed hard by weird, foreign, emotion-type things like the levees in New Orleans during hurricane season.
No matter how much I downplay it, no matter how much I laugh it off – body parts are gone forever. No matter how many more procedures it takes to rebuild some semblance of a chest – they will never be the real thing or look like the real thing. I know that my physical appearance doesn’t define me, and never has – so why in the holy f&*k is this driving me mad NOW??? I just don’t get it. And this whole piece is NOT for advice on how to deal with things, or for great words of wisdom, or for anyone to tell me to “buck up, Buttercup” – because I’m telling myself that one plenty, thank you very much. This piece was just how I know how to process things, and that is through writing. I only share in hopes that if there is one person out there who goes through something remotely similar, that they will know that they are not alone, and that they can, should, and will go through a mourning of their own.
As many people around the globe, I am still reeling from the shocking news of actor Robin Williams’ death, apparently by his own hand. I hear of celebrities passing, and it rarely has the impact that this one has had on me. Perhaps it was my beloved memories of his films throughout my lifetime, starting with his first appearances of Mork from Ork on Happy Days when I was just in elementary school. Or maybe the spinoff show that Mork got from that role. Or the many, many hours I spent watching Aladdin in my 20s with my young son, Nicholas, who lovingly referred to the Genie (voiced by Williams) as “Genie Dave.” Countless films. Countless laughs. Countless hours of entertainment. I can’t say it of many actors, but of this man, I can: I loved him.
So why does his death feel personal to me? Why do I keep tearing up at a new reference to an old role, or another new posting on Facebook of a memory, or a photo, or a quote? Maybe because it hits close to home, triggering memories of tragic loss, way too soon, by way of mental illness and suicide not once in my life, not twice, but three times, and with several other scares along the way.
I remember when I was in middle school, just a little younger than my Noah is now, when my parents finally got divorced after some back and forth moving in and out on my dad’s part. After 21 years of marriage, my mother was devastated, and consequently sunk into a deep, throw-me-a-lifeline sadness and depression. I couldn’t understand it; I couldn’t fix it, even with all of my 12-13 year old wisdom or humor. My brother and I took care of ourselves – doing our own laundry, getting ourselves to school and church, driving our mother’s car illegally at 13 and 14 to the store with a signed check of hers to buy groceries, cooking our own meals (and making sure that she ate, too). THAT is what I remember of those years. My mother tried to take her own life at least twice that I had to deal with, and thankfully she was not successful. But it leaves an impression on a kid, the importance of a healthy mental outlook. I’m not sure why she didn’t get any more help than some kind counseling from various people from church, but that was all she would accept. No real counselors. No meds.
Years later, at the ripe old age of 22, the stunning news of a close friend from youth group’s suicide was a significant punch in the gut. This wasn’t just somebody that we knew casually – this was someone close, who had been in my circle. There was no explanation, and it was a long time before there was a release from the grip of grief that swallowed each and every one of us who had spent countless hours with this amazing spirit that was now gone. I remember being angry after being upset, calling his actions selfish and cowardly; but I was young and ignorant about the real repercussions of addictions and/or mental illness.
Even more years later and a lifetime away, with different circles and different circumstances, I once again was brought to my knees when I got the call that my mother’s best friend had ended her life. My mom had been living with my family as she battled breast cancer, and her friend had taken over mom’s home, living there and making sure that all was kept in order. One day she came home and made a lone decision that would affect countless others in her life. There was no note. There was no explanation or reason that any of us could fathom as to why she would choose to take this desperate, and final, step. We searched for a note, or an email, or any clue as to why – and never found the answers we so hoped to find. For months afterward, I could not step foot inside of mom’s house. It sat empty for a while. The bathroom had to be remodeled, yet I still couldn’t go in. I couldn’t sleep and had horrible nightmares of guns going off; eventually my doctor put me on anti-anxiety meds and sleeping pills (not the best combo for extended use…but that’s another blog for another day). It took a long time for me to get past that one, as well as my children. But eventually it got easier, and the anger and grief subsided; and I started getting a clearer picture of what mental health issues can do when left unchecked.
Then it happened again. More years later, and only four years ago. Not as close to me as the previous two, but close to my boys and their family that I care deeply about. The days that preceded this death were filled with warnings of a much deeper issue, but those who recognized it felt helpless, dealing with an adult who we all thought had to be willing to get the help themselves. Looking back, and having learned some more about mental health challenges, I know now that sometimes it takes a push from a loved one.
And then most recently. My son, Nicholas. He scared the ever-loving shit out of me. That’s really the only way to describe it. One afternoon, his wife brought the baby to the house for a visit, and was clearly distraught and crying. She said that he was at home, in the bed, and wouldn’t get up. He had quit his job, and was scaring her with the level of depression that he had slipped into. I knew that I had to do something, so I got up and headed over to their house. I called a therapist friend and got some advice, and was prepared to take him to an emergency room if I felt that he was going to harm himself. We talked, I asked a lot of questions, I made him get up and I took him back to my house with me. They spent the day with us and then we went to dinner, and I told him to hang on until we could get him an appointment with the therapist that I had called. A couple of weeks later, I received a text from his wife that he was struggling again, and she was scared. I started talking to him through text, and when he told me that he hated everyone and everything, and then that he didn’t want to live anymore, I knew that the time had come and that I HAD to do something. I would be damned if I was going to sit by and hope that he got help. He was reaching out, and if I had to force him to get help, then I was willing to do it.
I drove to his school in Dallas, picked him up, and drove him to his therapist (and my amazing friend). I left him with her for an hour, and upon my return, we discussed mental health facilities in the area and made a plan. I was more scared for his life than I had ever been in the 22 years that he had been on the planet. My fear of losing him was so great, that I decided that it was worth him hating me for taking him than not doing anything at all. And so I did. I drove him to a facility not too far from where we are, and made sure that he knew that I was going to be leaving him there. Once we got there, he filled out paperwork and we waited. I had to take his necklace, his cell phone, his hoodie that had a drawstring, and ask his wife to bring him slip on shoes with no laces. Soon they were taking him back to be evaluated by the staff, and then finding him a bed. They told me that I could come back and visit that evening, during the one hour visitation. When I returned, his wife had arrived and we took turns going back to see him. I went first so that she could have most of the hour with him.
I will tell you – it was one of the WORST feelings I have ever experienced in my life, driving away and leaving my firstborn there. I cried almost the entire hour drive home; but I knew that he was safe, and wouldn’t hurt himself. At least not today. He would get seen by a mental health physician, get some meds, and would have group counseling three times per day. For six days, he stayed in the hospital, getting what he needed to get through the crisis. For this, I am thankful. I am glad that on THAT particular day, I was the pushy mother who stuck my nose in. I don’t know what I would have done if he would have done something to himself and I had not even tried to do anything to help him. I learned through that experience with Nicholas that sometimes, when the darkness takes over and the demons try to take control, sometimes we just aren’t able to keep our heads above water on our own. And like my friend, Brandie, said today, “We are all here together and we actually ARE each other’s keepers.”
Nicholas also has some insight that I wanted to share: “As soon as we passed the automatic doors, I knew that I was about to be far from my usual comfort zone. However, even if I was not able to do this for my own well-being, I knew that I needed to do it for my beautiful wife and daughter. As I filled out the paperwork for consideration of admittance, I was actually too afraid to look my mother in the eye. I am not sure whether it was due to me feeling ashamed of what things have come to, or just to avoid seeing her saddened face. I could not imagine what was going through her head as my mother, but I am quite sure that it was not entirely pleasant.
Once I was in the hospital, I had enough good fortune on my side that I was placed on the detox side of the hospital, rather than in the psych ward. That was a great thing too, because the individuals who were placed on the psych side of the hospital were not really as stable as the people I had the pleasure of staying with on my side. For most of my time in there, I mainly kept to myself and used the time for a lot of self-reflection. I was still not happy that it had come to admitting myself to a mental facility, yet I knew I had done the right thing,
Attending my group therapy sessions did some good as well, however, not in the sense that most people would think. Most of what was said in the group therapy sessions seemed to be quite “cookie cutter” phrases and what have you, but hearing them being spoken out loud still provides a decent comfort. Not to mention the crowd that you are a part of at a hospital of this nature is enough in and of itself to make you feel better about whatever hard circumstances you may be facing. Like I was saying, though, my help did not really come from my group therapy sessions, but rather hearing what other patients had to say to each other outside of these meetings.
You meet all kinds of interesting people in a mental hospital, from many different walks of life. Hearing these people explain their hardships and watch as tears roll out of their face sort of makes you connect with them on such a level that reminds you of how human you really are. Many people worry that society judges you for wanting to seek help in some sense that it appears as a weakness. I am here to say that in no way is getting help a sign of weakness. Think about all the people that really care about you. I know that that is not exactly the easiest thing to do when depression has set in, but it is important to express what is on your mind to someone as soon as possible before you find yourself in a situation that you could later regret. A good friend of mine recently told me some very simple words that I feel is very powerful in the sense of self-awareness. She simply said, ‘You are enough.’ So if you know anyone out there who is struggling with self-abuse, depression, or suicidal thoughts, leave them with those three words. It is a wonderful and powerful thing to say, and would be a great thing to say when you are not sure what else to say.” (Nicholas Dodd, 8/11/2014)
So…while many people feel like the thing to say to those who are struggling with depression and/or addiction is “I’ll pray for you,” it is important to know that while praying is all fine and good – it isn’t going to help your loved one. Action is what they need, especially when they can’t produce the necessary actions themselves. Take the risk. Make them mad. Maybe even hate you for a season. Would you rather hate yourself if they were gone? And chances are, they won’t hate you at all. We MUST keep a dialogue going about mental health. We need to love each other without judgment, so that those who are struggling aren’t afraid to ask for a lifeline.
So Rest in Peace, Robin Williams. Thank you for the years and years of laughter and happiness. Thank you for the selfless work you gave gave to the USO and to St. Jude’s kids. I hope that your demons are quiet now. You are not stupid, selfish, or a coward; we must understand that you had grown weary of trying to navigate dark and stormy waters. Thank you to my beautiful son, Nicholas, for staying. I need you here. Your family needs you here, all of us. Your wife and baby girl need you here. I say to you, and every other person who may be fighting for their very lives inside of their head:
You are enough. Period.
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If you, or someone that you care about needs help navigating through their own rough waters, please contact one of the following resources. Don’t fight alone.
* It Gets Better Project (www.itgetsbetter.org) – for LGBT youth going through difficult situations
* The Trevor Project (www.trevorspace.org) Trevor Lifeline: 1-866-488-7386 – Providing life-saving and life-affirming services for LGBT youth
* National Suicide Prevention Hotline (www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org) 800.273.TALK (8255)